Professor Stephan Lewandowsky on Climate Change and Social Norms

Posted on 30.11.2015

Stephan Lewandowsky is a cognitive scientist, working with computational models to try and understand patterns of human thought, specifically memory and decision-making. This work has led him into an exploration of why people do or don’t accept scientific evidence, in relation to subjects such as climate science, and the phenomenon of climate change denial. A recent paper also considered how prolonged climate change denial in the political and media spheres can  affect the scientific community, as with the concept of a ‘pause’ in global warming, potentially infiltrating, and seeping into the scientific discussion.

Here he responds to Invisible Dust’s questions, and explains the insight cognitive science offers into our behaviour, and what is necessary for action on climate.

When asked why we fail to respond to climate change by changing our behaviour, Stephan says: 

“I think the primary reason is that most people don’t know what small things they can do, and the big things (stopping flying or driving) are scary or appear unachievable. That does not mean people couldn’t change their behaviour in the future if we as a society develop a way forward that makes it easy for everyone to follow.”

With regards to the value of his work’s computational approach to progressing the conversation around climate change, Stephan explains that it has general usefulness as “the more we know about how people think, the better we can design messages or “nudge” people towards preferable behaviours—without impinging on their freedom of choice—and design better “choice architecture”.

Choice architecture considers the impact of the way we present ideas and information on the resulting decisions, examples of which can range from green smiley faces on electricity bills to restructuring city roads to favour cycling over driving. Building on this idea, Stephan sees that social psychology plays a significant role in our future.  “The most important step is to create a “social norm” such that everyone understands that we have to cut carbon emissions, in the same way that recycling or not smoking in public buildings has become a social norm over the years.”

The upcoming global climate talks at COP21 could play a key role then, in creating the culture of action and solution that Stephan considers vital:

“I think people will be mobilized by politicians or opinion leaders, and they will move along once it has become clear that a solution can be achieved and that we have embarked on a path forward. I think this primarily requires better politics and policies, although of course a better understanding of cognition would not hurt.” A culture of action and solution is what Stephan considers vital; “Everything will click into place once we move forward in visible and non-trivial steps. Once people believe that a problem is being solved, they are more than happy to contribute and their motivation to do so increases.”

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